Car Camping 101: Your Guide To A Great Outing

Tent and Car Under the Stars

Truck and SUV owners seem to get all the attention when it comes to outdoor pursuits like camping, biking, and water sports. 

Big tires, burly roof racks, shovels and axes, roof top tents – it seems at first glance like you absolutely need all that paraphernalia if you’re going to have a relaxing, fun, and comfortable time out in the woods. Not to mention that big shiny truck itself. 

Campfire and tent

But, that’s not necessarily the case. Especially here in North America, there are countless gateways to a meaningful and enjoyable wilderness experience without having to haul your six-ton pickup truck out of the muck with a winch. With a little bit of preparation and some key gear, your regular daily commuter can double as your adventure rig.

What To Bring Car Camping

Besides the baseline camping gear like a sturdy tent, cold-rated sleeping bags and sleeping mats, as well as coolers, cooking gear, and camp chairs, there are some extra perks that I like to bring along on an impromptu car camping excursion.

When my folks took me camping as a kid, there was an unsaid implication that it wasn’t “real” camping unless you were at least a little bit miserable the whole time. Maybe really miserable. Now that I think about it, it’s hard to figure out why I love camping so much even to this day. 

A tent glows under a night sky full of stars.

However, in our modern age, I say to all of that old misery: *unprintable*. There have been so many great innovations in camping gear since the days of drafty canvas tents, flannel sleeping bags, leaky kerosene lanterns, and digging cat holes, that there’s no excuse to suffer the worst of nature.

There are compact propane-fired water heaters, rocking camp chairs, collapsible fire pits, 12 volt portable fridges, down sleeping comforters, gourmet-level camp stoves, retractable awnings, and so much more. But, there is a middle ground – you can very quickly make your camping life way too complex, and find yourself on the wrong end of your credit card statement, in gearing up for your next adventure.

OVS Nomadic 180 Awning
Overland Vehicle Systems makes some really great portable shade options.

Here are a few of my key go-to’s for a comfortable car camping experience.

  • Go whole hog on your sleeping situation. If you’re not carrying it on your back, your car is, so don’t sweat the weight. Use a big tent – one you can stand up in, even. Go ahead and splurge on a super comfy air mattress. Bring your pillow. Pile on the blankets. Don’t feel ashamed. The better sleep you have, and the more comfortable you are, the more fun you’re going to have.
  • Are you going to be bookdocking it away from convenient facilities for a little while? Camping off the beaten path away from campgrounds? A cassette toilet like Tuff Stuff Overland’s Portable Toilet makes things just a little more civilized. This no mess solution is super affordable, and paired with a privacy tent offers all the conveniences (almost) of home.

    Toilet Tent - Tuff Stuff 4x4 & Tuff Stuff Overland
    Tuff Stuff Portable Toilet and Tent
  • Consider your power needs. In our modern age, we still need our phones and other electronic devices even if we’re out of range. How are you going to get those killer Instagram snaps if you’re on the final percentages on your battery? A compact solar-powered USB charger is just the ticket – it keeps the charging stress off your car battery, and they are super convenient on long hikes. Some even double as a little lantern at night.

    Want to get really serious? An ACO Power solar charging kit will keep a portable solar generator system up and running nearly indefinitely. Then you can break out the fridges, laptops, and movie projectors.
ACOPOWER 105W Portable Solar Panel, Foldable Suitcase for 12V Battery
ACO Power Solar Charging Kit

What About the Car?

Your ride should not be overlooked as you prepare for your camping trip. If you plan to go a little bit more remote than you usually might, it pays to prepare with some basic mechanical checks and equipment. 

Double check the level and conditions of important fluids like your oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid, and coolant. If anything looks a little low or suspect, top them off, and bring some back-up bottles. Give your suspension the once-over, paying particular attention to any leaky shocks or struts, and torn or worn bushings. Backwoods trails and washboard gravel roads can be hard on your undercarriage. Make sure your spare tire has air in it. 

When in doubt, leave early and drive slowly – remember, you’re out there to relax! Damaging your car by bombing down Forest Service roads in a big hurry is just going to ruin the vibe. Back off a bit, roll down the windows, and enjoy the fresh air. 

A small recovery kit is a worthwhile investment. A sturdy tow strap, a tire repair kit and air compressor (which can do double duty for your comfy air mattress!), and a basic set of tools that are relevant to your particular vehicle will give you some peace of mind.

VIAIR 40045 - VIAIR 400P Portable Air Compressor | AutoAnything™
Viair 400p Portable Air Compressor


Where To Go Car Camping

Now that you’re prepared and ready to hit the road, where should you go? When I plan a car camping trip, I try to build it around a campsite I don’t have to move once I get there, and from which I can access some hiking trails, or good fishing spots. My goal is usually to set up a “base camp” where I can explore the surrounding area at my leisure. Or not. I might just take a nap in my hammock.

Camping scene with tent and hammock

If you’re traveling with your daily driver, and it’s not a four wheel drive with some decent ground clearance, you can still access some pretty amazing places on a lot of America’s public lands. Check in with your local state forest, United States Forest Service, or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office for ideas about which roads are usually passable for passenger cars, and which campgrounds are car-camping friendly.

BLM land is often open to campers even away from designated campgrounds, as long as you don’t trample vegetation or pollute waterways. Using mobile apps like iOverlander or Campendium can help you narrow your search for sites that have already been in use. When possible stick to existing roads and trails, and use existing fire rings. And always, adhere to the Tread Lightly principles when exploring off the beaten path:

  • Travel responsibly
  • Resect the rights of others
  • Educate yourself
  • Avoid sensitive areas
  • Do your part

Get out there and have fun, no matter what you drive!

How do you get your wilderness fix? Do you prefer to suffer outdoors, or live in luxury? Any good car camping hacks? Let us know in the comments!


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